Up close and personal

By Beth and Shaun Tierney

There is nothing quite like getting up close and personal with the largest creatures in our oceans. Although as divers, we can only ever hope to encounter something that’s more than twice our size, when it happens, it’s an incredible, heart-stopping moment. Time freezes as the behemoth passes by, the diminutive humans just a tiny blip on their personal radar.


Sharks, despite their sometimes fearsome but usually unwarranted reputation, are always an intoxicating underwater encounter. Whalesharks are the gentlest of all the marine giants. At up to seven metres long, these placid, beautiful creatures are seen in many of the world’s oceans, but our most memorable meeting was in Thailand when we stumbled on several in one day.


On the opposing side of the shark hit-list is the ocean’s top predator, the Great White shark. While they are the last things we’d want to get too close to while diving, we were almost guaranteed seeing one from a cage off Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. Being within touching distance of such a magnificent beast was the biggest adrenaline rush we have ever had.


Divers rarely get a chance to see whales underwater, as these massive mammals traverse enormous distances often a long way out to sea. However, one winter, on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, we saw dwarf minke whales migrating south to their feeding grounds. The crew dropped buoyed ropes from the stern and we leapt in with masks and snorkels to gawk as gigantic animals pirouetted around us; they knew we were there and stayed far longer than we could endure the water temperature!


Amiable and easy-going, manta rays can be fickle beasts when compared to other marine giants. It’s almost as if they watch the divers from afar thinking, “now how long shall we make them wait?” Then just when your tank is close to empty, they swoop in and past, obviously just to tease. This happened over and over on the Pacific island of Yap, famous for its resident populations. Yet a few years later, across in the Socorro Islands, the mantas actively approached us. We would simply make eye contact with one and (assuming we were found to be acceptable) they would swim so close, we’d be encapsulated in the flapping wings.


Always playful, spinner and bottlenose dolphins are the animals most guaranteed to make us smile. Mostly, we see them zipping along in the bow wave of our boat, but in some countries, they are the perfect snorkeling companions. A pod of spinner dolphins, 100 or more strong, often romp in the bays off Christmas Island. They seem to wait for the dive boat to arrive and then watch as ungainly divers leap into the water. On nearby Cocos Keeling, we had a repeat performance but with a dozen young bottlenose dolphins. I don’t think we have ever been so tired but 20 minutes of playing chase with a dolphin really takes it out of you.


Turtles are perhaps the most frequently seen of the sea’s larger creatures: a good thing as they, like all marine giants, are endangered. Some conservation programmes have been particularly successful, and in recent years we have seen so many green and hawksbill turtles, we’re convinced these programmes are working. From Egypt and Zanzibar to the Galapágos, they can be just the size of a dinner plate or longer than a diver. We never fail to laugh at the number of times we find ourselves staring at something small on the reef only to note a turtle watching us from a few feet away.

More information on planning a dive trip to see the ocean’s giants can be found in Diving the World and Diving Southeast Asia, the results of Beth and Shaun Tierney’s 25-year love affair with being waterlogged on a tropical reef. Their passion for dive travel means they spend every available moment planning how far they can go just to see something special.

The amazing images on this page were taken and supplied by Shaun Tierney/seafocus.com

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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